Weekly reading 02.2018

Michèle Lamont

How Professors Think

ISBN: 9780674057333

The note

Below you can find what I found important in Michèle Lamont’s book. Many of the sentences below are quotations. I put the emphasis on epistemological differences and the meaning of interdisciplinarity. I consider this book as a handbook for ale reviewers, for the mit should be a “must-read”.

For panellists it is a pleasurable feeling to be able to work with inteligent people in panels and also reading the very good proposals. A process of convincing colleagues about one project could be seen as a challenge. Moreover, an opportunity to distribute money and to be in a fair game is also rewarding.

However, it is an additional task to full already week of busy people.

It is impossible to have clear recall, things we have read influence our judgement. There is no formal training on evaluation. Screeners have to learn by themselves or by observing experienced colleagues. Panellist are not evaluated, even if they are it is knowledge for a funding institution. The interdisciplinary character of the panel and competitions affects disciplinary argument and shapes how panelists go about convincing one another of a proposal’s merits, which includes the language they use.

American academia tends to judge people on their ability to contribute to major journals in the field. Panellists are impressed by people who are well-published.

Epistemological styles are the preferences for particular ways of understanding how to build knowledge, as well as beliefs in the very possibility of proving these theories.

The frequency of interactions across disciplines is low, owing to the departmental structure of academia.

Humanists are more concerned about the comprehensive way of doing research, they are not concerned much about socially engaged knowledge and not at all in utilitarian knowledge.

Social scientists on the other hand are focused only a little less in the comprehensive site of the knowledge than humanists, however much more on the socially engaged part of the research (hypothesis testing) and about the utilitarian way of doing research.

Humanists and social scientists evaluate proposals differently. The last put the emphasis on empiricism, while to other on interpretation. Moreover, humanists tend to describe wide processes while social scientists like to focus on a narrow problems. It is impossible to get rid of influences like schools the person came from, race, ethnicity and gender. Thus, it is good to create a panel that will represent people with different backgrounds. Humanists concerns more with the intellectual significance, historians ad social scientists concerns  a bit more with political and social significance.

History has been pushed towards social sciences and quantification. In history there are different trends in different generations. However, both of them can give credit to well written text, there is some bind of consensus in this field.

Cognitive contextualisation is an ability to describe things in a way that they can be easily understood by others. The different standards should be applied to the different disciplines. It can act as a counterweight to idiosyncratic tastes and pushes panellists to assess proposals through the lenses that are distinctive to the applicant’s field. It means to adopt different criteria of evaluation for different proposals.

Originality is manifested very differently in philosophy than it is in other fields.

The disciplinary broadening and diversification of criteria of evaluation may have led to a deprofessionalization that puts literary scholars in vulnerable position when competing on theoretical or historical grounds with scholars whose disciplines own that terrains.

Literary (English) proposals are more like a history proposals, there is a clear turn to this direction.

Trying to write something in not a primal discipline could be not easy, because of lack of theory. A theory helps to communicate with nonspecialists, it can positively enlarge the audience. Moreover it allows for cross-disciplinary conversation.

Excellence is somehow an universal language and a common language for generations. It is possigle to see power of argumentation, persuasiveness, originality. Two people even ideologically different will probably have similar feelings about the excellence of a proposal or a paper. You recognise excellence when you see it. Excellence is hard to describe, however it could be that part of a proposal or paper that convinces one. You can say that excellence resides in the objects being described. It is in some ways what looks most like you, which is always a bit of a problem.

A discipline that is in a transformation process is vulnerable to give away some part of the field and its boundaries are endangered.

The moment when a discipline is very hermetic is not good because very often there was much that have been said about the topic on neighbouring disciplines (anthropology -> sociology).

Being very strict with disciplinary criteria could be jeopardising for interdisciplinary evaluation.

There are certainly conventions of excellence that a good proposal no matter what the field, can engage with.

Different finding organisations use different standards and emphases for awarding grants (quantitative versus qualitative research).

Economists have the ability to draw a clear line in evaluating while humanists see borders blurry.

Fields maturity could be described as people are able to tolerate methodological and ideological pluralism.

It is important how things are examined and not what is examined (beholder versus object).

Sometimes you have to trust an expert when you do not know the field. Sometimes evaluators want to give funds to people not connected to scientific networks, because they want to give credit to ideas and not to look who or where prepared the proposal.

Clear aim should be included in every proposal, it should be easily found even by the person from different field.

Proposals are somehow written in common language, as an applicant you do not know who will read it.

There are such different methodologies that it is hard to say that there is a generalizable standard that applies to very different fields and research problems. Methodological pluralism –  different methods serve different purposes. Sometimes it is worth to ask questions like “Where there any different explanations? Maybe some of them were rejected, why?”

Research design have to be appropriate to the calls and claims.

Most important things in proposals for panelllists are:

  1. Siginificance (of impact on academia, on knowlede, on discipline)
  2. Originality (is often seen as something that advances knowledge.)
  3. Clarity
  4. Methods
  5. Feasibility
  6. “Quality” (craftsmanship, attention to details)

It is a pleasure to read a proposal prepared by a sharp intelligence, one that have a style that can handle complex ideas in a clear fashion.

Originality for humanists is meant as approach, data, theory, topic. For social scientists it is theory and topic, and for historians it is an approach and theory.

Humanists and historians value elegance and cultural capital more than social scientists.


  • developing conceptual links by using a perspective in one discipline to modify a perspective in another
  • using research techniques from one discipline in another
  • developing a new theoretical framework that can reconceptualise research in two or more different disciplines in a way to integrate them
  • to modify theoretical frame of and apply it to another one discipline

It can help to create a useful knowledge, it gives the ability to speak to different sets of people and it is broadening intellectual reach.